Foreign news is diminishing, in spite of technology Coverage: The immediacy and easy reach that the communications explosion provides is tending to trivialize the substance of news reports

THE ARGUMENT

September 08, 1996|By Hal Piper | Hal Piper,SUN STAFF

These should be the best of times for that legendary, trench-coated figure, the foreign correspondent. A sparrow cannot fall anywhere in the world, such is the miracle of modern communications, but the tragedy will be on tomorrow's front page - or, to give television its due, on the airwaves tonight - complete with interviews of the sparrow's widow and orphans.

Reporting is, in the great buzzword of the day, interactive. A black political figure dares journalists to find proof of slavery in Sudan. Two Sun reporters track down the story and buy a slave -no, two slaves - whom they then free.

Contrast this healthy, socially responsible journalism with the stereotypical alienated, emotionally stunted hack journalist enduring bugs, brackish water and cheap booze in forgotten backwaters.

But the truth is that foreign correspondence is getting worse. A tyranny of immediacy, born of instantaneous global communication, has shrunk the world of the foreign correspondent and hence the window on the world that he (and increasingly, she) can offer to the reader.

The lone-wolf correspondents, roaming the world on an expense account, proudly anointing themselves "hacks" in self-loving humility. Now they are tethered tightly by phone and satellite to deskbound editors in New York, Washington or Baltimore. It is they who decide what the news is to be. And what is important to deskbound editors is matching what the other editors are running and, of course, staying on top of the latest crisis.

Stephen Hess has studied what gets covered in newspapers and on television ("International News & Foreign Reporting," Brookings Institution, 209 pages $26.95). Analyzing coverage of the United States, he found a broad and balanced array of subjects, but the foreign report was mostly about violence.

Half the world's 180 or so countries were never noted. (India and Indonesia - the world's second- and fourth-largest countries - rarely enter the news unless a pope or president visits them.) Coverage by continent distorted the map of the world. International news was being reported on by "parachutists," reporters of no fixed address whose expertise was in dropping in on people trying to slaughter each other. This was an economical system of newsgathering and one guaranteed to make the world seem even more dangerous than it is.

There is more paradox here. Hess documents that reporters are better educated and better prepared for their foreign assignments than ever before. The old-fashioned hacks usually had more adventurous spirit than familiarity with the language and culture of the places they covered. Today, language fluency is often a prerequisite for a foreign assignment, and many overseas correspondents have completed graduate-level studies in politics or economics.

Yet these elite journalists supply an increasingly tedious product ordered up by a news agenda made in the USA. Half of television's international report, Hess found, consisted of stories about U.S. citizens or U.S. diplomacy. Many others confirmed American preconceptions - Islamic fundamentalism, English eccentricity, German neo-nazism, Japanese workaholism.

Even The Sun's investigation of slavery in Sudan owed its origin to a domestic controversy involving Louis Farrakhan.

Less than 20 years ago, I was in my third year as a foreign correspondent for The Sun before I got my first phone call from the home office. My editor tracked me down in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to give me a heads-up that a company bigwig wanted to drop in on me in Moscow the next month. Today's correspondents talk to their editors daily - often several times. They might as well be the other kind of hack - radio-controlled cabbies. They may cruise a little, but most of their work comes from the dispatcher.

Instant communication is effective in organizing coverage of a crisis, but reporting of originality and depth comes only from journalists in the field taking their time to know other countries.

Ignore the Rotary Clubs

For example, what's going on in Turkey these days? If, like Will Rogers, all you know is what you read in the papers, it seems that this erstwhile American ally is convulsed by Islamic fundamentalism and - in a defeat for U.S policy - is planning major economic investment in the Islamic pariah state Iran.

That's not exactly wrong, but it leaves out a lot. Turkey and Iran have very different approaches to democracy and, for that matter, to Islam. Moreover, as an old-fashioned hack - well, why be modest? - I could have told you about Turkey's longstanding ambition - well before religious politics entered the equation - to build a Mediterranean economic colossus on its favorable geographical and social conditions. I heard all about it 15 years ago at a Rotary Club meeting in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Somewhere in my basement I still have the little orange Rotary flag they gave me.

The veteran New York Times foreign correspondent Christopher S. Wren, in a new novel ("Hacks," Simon and Schuster, 287

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